Sunday, June 27, 2010

Life and death

48 hours after she was found hanging from her ceiling, newschannels are still speculating,"Who killed Viveka Babajee???!!!"

Methinks the frisson of excitement is for two reasons:

* The victim was a model, in fact she was the KS model. So, enough pretty pictures and rampwalking sequences to make bad news look kind of good. Which matters a great deal on television.

Plus, her friends are models, so a chance to beam more pretty faces - all of whom declare she was wonderful and strong and they are shocked. But not shocked enough to appear on TV teary-eyed, or without make-up.

* Dozens of people kill themselves everyday - who cares. But if someone who is beautiful, successful, rich and famous kills themselves... ouch! That means the majority of human beings - average-looking, unknown, living in Vasai (E), with nagging mother-in-laws and leakage in the bathroom - what hope do they have?

So - accept your Fate. Nobody is happy, samjhe?

The other aspect of this story I find sad is the glee with which anchors and columnists are placing the blame on a 'string of unhappy relationships'. That the break-up with the latest guy in her life was the straw that broke her back.

Okay. This line of thought assumes that people who get married to their boyfriends will definitely be happy and never think about killing themselves.

Let me give you a (completely imaginary but plausible) scenario B.

Ex-model marries stockbroker boyfriend.
They quickly discover, we are not 'made for each other'.

Husband sleeps around (openly).
Wife sleeps around (discreetly).

The two rage and sulk, fight and argue.
Every day, every night...

Two things can happen:
* The couple separates
* The couple sticks on

The second scenario is more likely if a child has been born. You see, the child needs a 'family' (at least in the photo album).

The woman adjusts to the 'benefits' that come with the tag of being Mrs XYZ. Bangla, gaadi, spending money she doesn't have to earn.

The man also enjoys his perks. After all, someone has to manage dhobi, cook, 'bring up' the children and keep elders happy (chalo, finally dikra settle toh ho gaya).

And so Boy and Girl stay together - for reasons of lifestyle, for convenience and for social status. There is no 'love', no real sharing or companionship. But why kill yourself over it?

You are already a part of the 'Living Dead'.

Also see: Blog I wrote back in 2006 - Depression: It could happen to you

Sunday, June 20, 2010

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' - review

Like millions of others, I recently discovered Stieg Larsson's 'Girl with the Dragon tattoo' and said, "Wow, what a book!"

At one level it's a pretty good murder mystery but what I really loved was the backdrop. I've read one too many book set in London, Paris, Los Angeles & New York. Sweden is a whole new and fascinating world and came with many surprises.

I've always thought of Sweden as some kind of socialist paradise where people are smiling, peaceful and blonde. Well, this book brutally explodes that postcard picture. The Sweden where girls sport dragon tattoos has a dark underbelly - just like any other part of the world.

The principal character in the book is Michael Blomkvist, a journalist who brings out a small magazine called 'Millenium'. At the very beginning, Michael is sentenced to 3 months in prison for defaming a business magnate by the name Hans-Erik Wennerstorm.

Not that Wennerstorm ain't a slimeball, but sometimes, it's complicated.

To save his magazine and his sanity, Blomkvist takes up an unusual assignment from another tycoon called Henrik Vanger. Vanger is obsessed with a 37 year old mystery in his family - the disappearance of his 16 year old niece Harriet. Foul play was suspected, but neither her body nor her murderer were ever found.

Henrik wants Blomkvist to examine the mystery with 'fresh eyes' and is willing to pay a humongous sum of money if Blomkvist agrees to spend a year in the rural outpost of Hedestad. Pretending to write a book on the Vanger family and empire.

So far so good, but the really interesting character in the tale is runnning a parallel track. Lisbeth Salander is a quaint, misunderstood, genius-level hacker and freelance private detective. In fact, officially, she is considered 'unfit' as an adult and therefore must have a legal guardian provided by the State.

And here's where the author really departs from the world of Agatha Christie where evil lurks in man even in the idyllic countryside. But there is never any cruelty, exploitation or indeed systemic failure.

You are forced to wonder, who, really can decide on another man or woman's sanity? People who would never sport a dragon tattoo and appear to be model citizens can actually, be monsters underneath.

In fact the original Swedish title of the book 'Men who hate women' is quite appropriate! I won't say anymore because it will take away from your reading pleasure. Salander and Blomkvist eventually team up and discover deep dark secrets (yeh part thoda filmi laga mujhe) but hell, I'm sure Hollywood will soon make one :)

Apart from the 'story', I enjoyed a couple of other aspects about the book. Blomkvist has sex with three different women - but it's not in the James Bond mode. There's just a different sense of morality, less boxed-in relationships.

For example, Erika - Blomkvists's long time friend and business partner - is married to Greger. But she spends many evenings and weekends with him, with the knowledge - and tacit consent - of her husband. And this arrangement works fine for all three parties.

Lastly, Blomkvist is passionate about the role and responsibility of journalists. In fact, he has written a book titled 'The Knights Templar: A Cautionary Tale for Financial Reporters' in which he minces no words to describe the depths to which this reportage has fallen.

"In the last 20 years, Swedish financial journalists had developed into a group of incompetent lackeys who were puffed up with their own self-importance and who had no record of thinking critically... (they) seemed content to regurgitate the statements issued by CEOs and stock market speculators - even when this information was plainly misleading or wrong."

Sounds familiar doesn't it? Human nature, and the nature of power and politics is pretty much the same. Wherever you go. That's why this series from Sweden has sold 35 million copies...

Sadly, all after the author's own sudden and untimely death, before any of it was published. Life - and the way it works - is the biggest mystery of all.

Well, I have parts 2 and 3 to look forward to. Uske baad, back to looking for something new and different to read...!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Share your bschool experience

If you're a current student or recent graduate of an Indian or international bshool - boy, I am I glad you're reading this.

Please contribute to Businessworld's bschool guide 2010-11, help aspirants understand what your school is all about. Your feedback will be published, along with your photograph.

If interested, drop me a line at rashmi_b at and I'll send across the questionnaire :)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Career query of the week

The amount of thought, logic and reason some of you put into your career-related decisions never ceases to amaze me. Here is one such 'thoughful' young man.

I am currently in a junction point of my career. I got selected for the MS(by Research) program in Finance(Finance+OR+Maths) at IIT Madras. I am currently working as Software Engineer with XXX (leading MNC IT co). I will quickly mention my credentials and then go to my question.

I have 92% marks in 10th standard, 93% marks in 12th standard (both from West bengal State Board) and 9.14 CGPA in Computer Engineering (3rd Rank in class) from NIT XX. I have been working for 3 years after my B.Tech.

This MS program will give me either an analytics job (current recruiters are Irevna, HCL, ICICI etc) with a package of 7.5-8.0 Lpa or I can get admission to a good Finance PhD from one of the top 10 US Universities (with IIT tag and good reco hopefully!).

My question is whether it will be a right move for me to join this course given some other possible career moves:

1. I can take GRE this year and apply directly for PhD in Finance from tier 2 US business schools.

Pros: I can finish PhD by at least 1 year early and enter Job. My 2 years in MS will be saved.

Cons: Acceptance rate for Fin PhD is very low: around 2-5% as many Maths/Physics PhD, fresh MBA from top B-Schools opt for the same. I may not even get into a reasonably good school (Like UT Austin, USC, Maryland etc) (are my assumpsions correct?)

2. I can take CAT this year and get into IIMs

Pros: I can enter Finance job market early and probably decide over PhD after doing job for a couple of years.

Cons: Getting into IIM A/B/C/L is highly uncertain. This year I got only 84 percentile(without any preparation, my father had collected the form). With good preparation for next 5 months I may get good score, but, even then I am not sure how much worthy it will be to join IIM I/K or MDI/SpJain/NITIE after 4 years work ex in a top company.

3. I can continue with my job for another two years and write GMAT and get into 1 year Exec MBA from ISB/IIM A/ IIM B/IIM C.

Pros: The opportunity cost will be less as I will be working more and can save some money to fund my MBA partially.

Cons: I will probably not get a Finance job at all/ get entry level job after 5 years of work ex in software field.

My premises are:
1. I love Mathematics, Statistics, Theoritical Computer Science, Algorithms. If money was not a factor I would love to do advanced studies and research in these fields. PhD in Finance or Financial Engineering would be a good fit based on my area of interest. But also I don't want to reduce my earning potential by 50% for the rest of my life if it (Phd) means so.

2. I dont like classes that teach leadership kind of stuff (attended some corporate trainings) and I am not a typical sales guy. I hate HR also. Historically I did not participated much in the kind of tasks which required managing or influencing people a lot (eg. organizing college fest, raising funds for the same, contacting companies and alumni etc)

3. I am not very passionate about technology and so to continue in product company may not prove very fruitful for me.

4. Business PhD and specially Finance is always more rewarding than Engineering PhD. With PhD I will have both options of Industry(I-Bank Quant jobs,Consultancy) and Academia open. I also love teaching. I teach underpriviledged kids at a local school in Hyderabad on weekends.

5. I can't afford the financial risk of Foreign MBA/ Foreign MFE (Master in Financial Engineering) given my background and the house loan I have taken already.

6. The opportunity cost of a PhD is very high as compared to MBA since I will enter the Job market at least after 3 years.

7. I am 25 years old and unmarried.

If I join the MS-Fin course at IIT, my motivation will be to join top 10 US PhD-Fin programs and not job after MS. Do you think it is a right career move on my part given my premises/credentials/possible options? Please put your thoughts across.

My response: Dear Young Man, clearly,
a) You are not passionate abt technology.

b) You want to make a lot of money, quickly, in the field of finance.

What I am not clear is, why PhD? Because you won't be burdened with a loan is your logic.
But my dear time is money - a PhD will take 3 years (at the very least) while an MBA can be completed in a year or two.

If you get into IIMA, B or C (you have not even tried for it seriously) - you have high probability (given yr profile & inclination) of getting into a 'high paying job' with an i bank or similar.

Paying off the loan would not be an issue.

Now you are a mathematical chap who is always weighing the possibility 'what if' I do not get in. Life mein itna belief rakhna padta hai.. u have to take a leap of faith and give it your best.

After your best shot, if you don't reach your goal then yes, you look at options like MBA abroad from a top school.

Just remember, hurry creates worry. So be ambitious but also patient. All the best.

Young Man replies: The logic behind PhD is:

1. It gives a sense of achievement of a topmost degree. Taking IIM A/B/C and ISB together annually ~1500 high quality MBAs are produced in India alone. By simple demand supply equation PhD in business has a clear edge.

2. I will still have the option of I-Banks/Consultancy, besides the doors of Academia opens. (with the foreign university bill, specially business academia is going to be next happening thing)

3. As you wrote in one of your articles: 'As you rise up higher in the ladder, success is increasingly defined not by what you know or do, but how you manage and motivate your people'.

I think leadership and administration is not by strength area. True that I can do a descent job there with some training and grroming, but by natural instincts are towards Individual contributor (IC) path, where to build a good model and advising people the benefits of it can give me more pleasure. And in IC path PhDs will always be one step ahead of MBAs (hope this holds true in Financial job markets also).

4. I liked your advice "Hurry creates worry". But considering my dad retires after 5 years, I dont want to shift the burden of house loan and my family on my retired father in case I am going to do PhD after MBA followed by 2-3 years of work. So, agar PhD karna hai toh isi saal join karna hai. So it has now become a choice between MBA or PhD in Business.

5. And one bewkoof logic: many of my classmates from school are currently doctoral students at Stanford, MIT, Cornell etc and they are having no worse lifestyle than me doing a not-so-satisfying job I have right now. So sometimes I get the kick that I should have been doing some thing better, something more fundamental.

My response: When you have so much conviction re: PhD you should then certainly go and do it. However I would be happier to hear more of 'This excites me' rather than 'I don't like this, this and this therefore..."

An active choice based on interest and passion always works better than a logical one based on eliminating options.

Second point is, 'leadership' is always required, whatever you do. No man is an island, PhD or not. My father is a PhD in Space Physics and leading the team which is building India's first astronomy satellite Astrosat. Even though he may be a 'pure' scientist ultimately he is also a manager and administrator.

Lastly, EMI should not worry you to death. If it becomes a burden, dispose of the house and buy again after completing studies - when you have the money and secure job once again.

By the way, the EMI advice applies to anyone and everyone who wants to do something different in life. Live on rent, live without fear. You will own a house one day. You don't have to, at 25!

Do add yr comments/ advice for Young Man. Esp if you are on the PhD path yourself.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Exempt exempt exempt

News channels spent most of their time yesterday talking about the new Direct Tax Code. It's wonderful how often and how quickly the government tweaks and sharpens its financial instruments.

Meanwhile the country's judicial system remains a rusting and blunt knife, as is
clear from the Bhopal Gas Verdict.

Last night CNN IBN was the one channel which continued to keep Bhopal and its victims as the top story. Editor in chief Rajdeep Sardesai aired clips of his visit to the affected area, where he spoke to survivors.

Visuals of the children born handicapped, deformed, unable to speak - a generation later - are absolutely heart rending.

And they are suffering, not just because of Union Carbide.

For the last 26 years residents of the area have been drinking contaminated water. So in effect they have been poisoning themselves - every single day!

And victims or activists who have raised their voices against this and other injustices have been harassed. 60 and 70 year old women who marched in protest are now visiting court every month, as cases of 'rioting' have been upon them.

But guess what - you wouldn't know all this if you hadn't watched CNN IBN last night. And how much impact can a single channel make?

The gas tragedy and the tragic state of its victims is a national shame, which all media should be covering relentlessly. If all major print & TV networks deputed a good reporter to camp in Bhopal, all kinds of horrific stories would be uncovered.

There would be pressure on the government and civil society to 'do something'.

But in this hyper-competitive world, every newshound is busy sniffing out his or her own 'exclusive story'.

Hindi channels are following their own scheme of priorities.

The newspapers have moved Bhopal off the front page, pretty much.

No media house has given a clarion call for 'candlelight vigil'.

Warren Anderson will die with a guilty conscience but what about the rest of us?

If the government and the offending company cannot cough up money and medicine to improve victims' quality of life (or rather punishment period on this earth) - can an alternative be found by citizens?

Is there some NGO which lets people 'adopt an affected child' - pay for his or her treatment and upbringing?

It's not fair of course, but it's something.
Something positive.

Maybe the new direct tax code can add a special EEE and make it more 'attractive'.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

'The Truth about IIPM's Tall Claims': Update

It was exactly 5 years ago that JAM magazine first published the story 'The Truth about IIPM'S Tall Claims' in its issue dated Jun 15-29 2005.

This was the first time that any media in India had examined the claims made by IIPM in its ubiquitous full page advertisements where it dared students to 'dream beyond IIMs'.

As readers of this blog would be aware, IIPM carried out a malicious personal attack on me, for publishing this article. Legal action was threatened but never initiated.

We had full documentary evidence for every claim we had questioned, and wherever we had found the institute lacking.

Last week, there was a new development.

We recieved a notice from Silchar in Assam, where the Hon Civil Judge no 1 at Cachat had passed an injunction restraining us from displaying the above article. As per the court's instruction, we have temporarily removed the link to the article.

Let me assure you JAM will seek legal recourse against this injunction. As the matter is sub-judice I would not like to get into the details.

However, the following questions are pertinent:
1) If IIPM had a strong case why did it not file one in 2005. when the article was originally published?

2) The head office of JAM is in Mumbai, while that of IIPM is in New Delhi. So why has a case been filed in Silchar?

Apart from this, why does IIPM continue to fight a proxy internet campaign to malign me by spidering a blog created by 'IIPM Student-9' where I am referred to as a trickster publishing a yellow journal.

(No I am not providing a link here, the offending page appears when you type my name in google on the first page of 'search results'.)

I have faith in the country's judicial system as regards the protection of free speech. And I believe journalists must continue to write free and fair reports in the public interest, regardless of the pressures and pulls involved.

Thank you all for your love and support.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

'The Immortals of Meluha' - Why I loved it!

It is the rare book which keeps me awake into the night, turning the pages, in a fever to reach 'the end'. And rarer still is such a book from an Indian author.

'The Immortals of Meluha' is that unusual piece of writing.

It is a book which defies classification. I think the genre it falls in is 'mythological fantasy'. Meaning you're reading a story with familiar sounding characters and concepts but, that's just the gravy.

The plot has been entirely cooked up by the author and the beauty is you lose track of where myth ends and fiction begins.

The novel is set in 1900 BC. Shiva is the young leader of the Gunas, a tribe which is constantly battling for survival in the rough and arid landscape of Tibet. He accepts the offer of a mysterious foreigner to emigrate to Meluha - a rich, powerful and near perfect empire created by Lord Ram.

Whose inhabitants are immortal.

However, the Suryavanshis - as the citizens of Meluha describe themselves - are threatened by an invisible enemy. Legend has it that 'when evil reaches epic proportions, when all is lost... a hero will emerge.'

As you might have guessed, that hero is Shiva.
A bewildered and reluctant hero.

The author asks a startling question, "What if Lord Shiva was not a figment of a rich imagination, but a person of flesh and blood? Like you and me. A man who rose to god-like proportions because of his karma."

So apart from being a thrilling and imaginative story this is a book with a Big Idea: "What if there exists a potential god in every human being??"

But, this is a subtle kind of message, more of the book involves action, imagination, intrigue. And yeah, even a dash of humour and a touching love story (Shiva falling in love with Sati - daughter of the ruler of Meluha).

Apart from story, what's interesting is the way the author has used the familiar and given it a twist. Whether it is Neelkanth, Har Har Mahadev or Somras.

I won't reveal, you should read and find out for yourself.

The interpretation of caste and the concept of vikarma is also quite thought provoking. In the 'perfect' society of Meluha all women give birth to their children and give them up to the State to bring up. This is known as the 'maika' system.

Every child is given equal opportunity and takes up a profession as per his or her natural talents. In this way the privileges of caste and class become irrelevant and a just & fair society is created.

Families adopt a child at age 16 and 'civilisation' flourishes.

Under the same system, those affected by misfortune (eg the handicapped or a woman who gives birth to a stillborn) are known as vikarmas. They have an inferior status in society and accept this as their Fate.

The logic is that it is frustation inside a person which creates rebellion and discontent in society.

There are many such ideas to chew on... many references to modern times (including terrorism and an India-Pakistan kind of intractable ek doosre ko samajhne ka problem).

So in short I would like to congrtulate Amish for coming up with a fine, very different, very India book. But one with a universal, international appeal as well.

The cover is beautifully produced and so is the promotional trailer.

It's also wonderful to see that this book, brought out by a small publisher (Tara Press) has become a best-seller (over 25,000 copies sold so far).

Apparently Amish took five years to write the book and eight months waiting for a publisher to revert, before Anuj Bahri of Bahrisons asked if he could publish it himself.

It's also fascinating to know that Amish was never religious, in fact he took pride in being a non-believer... until the certainty that there is a Superior Force just crept up on him.

And lastly, I am happy to see an 'IIM author' who has done something totally unpredictable, different, exciting.

I only hope that the holier-than-thou brigade does not one day wake up and 'take offence'. After all Shiva has been portrayed as a human being who speaks colloquially and is not always 'godly'.

That is exactly why I loved the book and why the religious types might not.

But it's a chance Amish has taken and with Shiva's blessing he should be able to face - anything.

Meanwhile us mortals await parts 2 and 3. And the movie version, of course :)

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